Cudahy’s Majority Hopes to Bury Bickering and Grudges for Good
The late-night April party after the election of incumbent City Councilman Joseph Graffio and his running mates, Alex Rodriguez and Jack Cluck, was more than just a victory celebration.
To the three council members and their supporters, it also signaled the end of a city government so consumed by ceaseless bickering, political wheeling and dealing and personal grudges that council members were either calling each other names or refusing to speak to one another much of the time.
In recent years, the council was virtually at a standstill while Cudahy emerged as one of the poorest cities in the nation and one of the most overcrowded cities in Los Angeles County, according to residents, business people and even the members of the old council.
“The old council wasn’t giving the city any guidance,” said Councilman Joseph Fregeau, appointed to the City Council in 1989 to replace the late Gabe Zippi. “Everyone was fighting so much, no one cared about the city. . . . The people have said they are sick and tired of what’s going on. They are tired of the (bickering over) gambling, the recalls, the council fights over social services. They are telling the council to get off the pot and start doing things for them.”
Council members, business people and residents said last week that they hope the new council will put aside the personal differences that plagued the former council and help get the city back on its feet.
New council members say there will be no more bickering.
Graffio and newcomers Rodriguez and Cluck are expected to join with Fregeau to form a solid bloc on the five-member council for the first time since 1986. They are political allies, and personal friends of Fregeau, who acted as their campaign manager.
Graffio, Rodriguez and Cluck mailed pamphlets during the campaign proclaiming themselves as “The Right Team.” They also endorsed the same agenda.
The strong ties may end a council split that reached a peak after Councilman Tom Thurman announced in January that he was resigning before the expiration of his term in April.
After Thurman departed, the council met just once before the April 10 election. Almost nothing was accomplished, as the meeting dissolved into shouts and name-calling. Without Thurman to cast the swing vote, every key item failed, 2-2.
In separate interviews last week, Fregeau, Graffio, Rodriguez, Cluck and Councilman John Robertson outlined some of their ideas for Cudahy’s future. They spoke of redevelopment, attracting new businesses to town and finding ways to control population density.
Not everyone was optimistic that the fighting that paralyzed the last council is a thing of the past.
Robertson, the outsider on the new council, said the majority has already demoted or fired political foes on the city staff. Jim Herrin, an unsuccessful council candidate supported by Robertson, was replaced as a planning commissioner by former Councilwoman Faye Dunlap. Ebbie Mouton, who as city clerk had been involved in several clashes with City Manager Jack Joseph, was demoted to executive administrative aide.
In replacing Herrin and Mouton, the new council members have already proven themselves to be “vindictive,” Robertson said.
“I’m not very hopeful things are going to get any better,” he said. “Kicking out everyone who doesn’t agree with you is not the way to end bickering. The council has to recognize that some things are going to be accomplished better by compromising than by eliminating people.
“Until they are willing to sit down and get all the factions together, I predict that in two years we will see exactly the same thing we saw on the last council.”
The old council spent much of its time arguing about how bingo games and social services should be operated and who should run them. Some residents, fed up with constant bickering, targeted each member of the council for recall at one time or another during the last four years. All of the recall efforts failed.
Some council members said Thurman’s resignation stemmed from the fighting and the pressure that his colleagues exerted on him as the deciding vote on several issues. Thurman had earlier been removed as mayor by Graffio, Robertson and Fregeau, who said Thurman had been “indecisive.”
While the council members battled, the city was deteriorating, according to business people, residents and council members.
Planning Commissioner Esmer Bryant said construction in the city has run rampant because of poor planning.
Planning Director William Davis said city zoning laws and narrow, deep lots encourage construction of apartments. About 60% of the city is zoned for multifamily residential units.
Most lots are about 52 feet wide and 395 feet deep, which encourages apartment development when single-family homes are vacated, he said.
The projects that the planning commission has been approving, some of which call for the replacement of a single-family home with a five-unit apartment building, have not helped the city’s density problem, Davis acknowledged.
Cudahy ranked as the third-most-crowded city in the county in January, 1989, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning. An estimated 20,955 people lived then in the 1.07-square-mile city.
Cudahy has changed dramatically in the last decade. Once a conservative community of single-family homes populated by transplants from the Midwest, it now teems with Latino families who rent. The only commercial strip is along Atlantic Boulevard, which runs through the center of town. The big homes on spacious lots have been replaced by many apartments, creating traffic problems and a shortage of parking space.
“There have been years of overpopulation and overbuilding, and the council let it happen,” Bryant said. “They just have to put a stop to it.”
Councilmen Cluck and Fregeau said the city is looking at ways to intensify code enforcement, such as cracking down on landlords who allow more than one family to live in a home or apartment. The council may also examine the General Plan and update zoning codes, Fregeau said.
Cluck said the council has also discussed placing a moratorium on building apartments.
But much more has to be done, said businessman Henry Lee, who has operated his manufacturing company in Cudahy since 1957.
The city needs to attract more businesses, he said. The city now receives most of its money from the sales tax produced by K mart and a Tiangus grocery store, and from a share of vehicle registration fees collected by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“Our little city needs a whole lot of guidance, and it’s got a tough way to go,” Lee said. “Little has been done toward improving revenues for the city in the last few years, and we need development of businesses, especially along Atlantic Boulevard. Those will bring in the sales tax (revenues) we need to bring more development.”
Lee said the city should lobby harder for federal grants that would help Cudahy perk up its business climate.
Council members said they plan to woo developers to improve the city’s services and pad its small budget of $5 million a year. Fregeau said money that could have been used to improve the city had been wasted on projects that never materialized.
“We just can’t afford it,” he said. “If we quit throwing away money and start being efficient, we can do what is best for this community.”
Council members said they have their work cut out for them but are already one giant step ahead of the last council. “Instead of having the friction we had before, we have councilmen who are going to work together,” Graffio said.
“I can’t see anything in our future but go, go, go.”
BACKGROUND In 1986, Cudahy voters elected Tom Thurman, Bill Colon and Joseph Graffio to the City Council. They joined John Robertson to oppose Councilman Gabe Zippi, who supported opening a card casino in the city. But issues relating to card casinos and bingo games continued to dominate council meetings in the next four years, triggering arguments and sharp divisions that virtually paralyzed city government, according to several officials and others.